David Pountney

David Pountney Discusses WNO’s ‘A Terrible Innocence’

This summer, Welsh National Opera invites us to dive into unknowable realms of the psyche with the season theme ‘A Terrible Innocence’. Two new productions will explore the danger and destructiveness which can lurk beneath an apparently benign surface: WNO Artistic Director and CEO David Pountney will stage Debussy’s ravishing impressionist masterpiece Pelléas et Mélisande, alongside the UK premiere of Richard Ayres’ wildly inventive Peter Pan, directed by Keith Warner.

Of course, innocence is one of opera’s most prevalent motifs. From comedy to tragedy, tales of moral misadventure abound, and operatic history is littered with the corpses of heroines – it’s almost always women – who pay the ultimate price for some wrongdoing, real or imagined.

But in opera, as in life, things are seldom simple. And around the turn of the 19th century – when Debussy chose Maeterlinck’s symbolist play for the libretto of his first (and only completed) opera, and JM Barrie turned his fantastical novel into a children’s play – a new, existential anxiety was in the air. Social roles and values were being challenged, just as deep drives within the unconscious were being unmasked. Old certainties were dissolving into mystery and metaphor, fuelling new art which, for us today, remains liberating and disquieting in equal measure.

WNO’s Pelléas takes as its starting point the company’s award-winning 2013 staging of Berg’s Lulu; a twin landmark of operatic psychological insight. As Pountney explores below, in conversation with Steph Power amidst rehearsals, Pelléas too features a heroine of mysterious origin and apparent vulnerability who brings disaster to her adopted world.

Similarly timeless and otherworldly, Peter Pan is the archetypal boy who refuses to grow up. He signals faerie enchantment and adventure for the Darling children, but the Neverland to which he entices them is part-shadowed by cruelty, entrapment and physical threat. Musically, Barrie’s alluring tale offers the perfect vehicle for the 49-year-old Ayres; a composer of offbeat stylistic melanges with his own, Peter Pan-like creative vigour. Indeed, according to his ‘imagined biography’, aged 14, Ayres ‘ran away from home to become second cabin-boy aboard “the Redshank”, a merchantman.’*

Peter Pan (2013, libretto by Lavinia Greenlaw), will be conducted by Erik Nielsen, whilst WNO’s acclaimed Music Director, Lothar Koenigs, will take the baton for Pelléas. With strong casts all round, there will also be another chance to see Dominic Cooke’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute (conducted by Simon Phillippo).

The season opens next Saturday May 16 with Peter Pan. The Magic Flute follows on May 22, with Pelléas et Mélisande on May 29; all three at Cardiff’s Wales Millennium Centre, then touring: http://www.wno.org.uk/whats-on


Steph Power: Could we start by talking about your evocative, provocative season title, ‘A Terrible Innocence’?

David Pountney: Yes of course – it’s meant to provoke discussion! It seemed to me that these two pieces are about people  who appear to be innocent but who have the capability of causing great harm; that innocence is sometimes a disguise for something much more predatory or dangerous.

Susan Sontag went even further when she wrote about Pelléas, describing a ‘pathological innocence’. She contends that all the protagonists – not just Mélisande – inhabit an unhealthy realm of ‘incurable vulnerability’ as she put it, with connotations of disease and decline. Does that go too far?

Well, they are all in a state of morbidity aren’t they? And also in a state of arrested development. That is, Mélisande appears to be in a state of arrested development, and so does Pelléas, actually; they’re neither of them responsible. That’s partly to do with this kind of hermetically sealed, clearly very unhealthy environment in which they’re living. But that is interesting – and wasn’t it Debussy who was horrified about the whole idea of certainty?


The piece is trying very hard to be uncertain all the time. And of course there’s a very nice paradox there because my colleagues are always fussing about whether Debussy really wrote F# in that bar; why he wrote ‘à la touche’ here and not there; all of those things! The music is at the same time something which is so tremendously certain, everyone pores over the score. Yet actually his entire ethos is to create a very studied level of ambiguity whereby you never know who is responsible for anything.

The piece hovers in an invisible, subterranean world – a world of suggestion rather than statement. You never know what Mélisande may be feeling.

I wonder actually if she isn’t psychopathic in a way. Because although she’s very nice to everybody, she doesn’t engage with anybody emotionally. At the end she says, ‘is Golaud here? Why doesn’t he come and see me?’ Everybody else is fretting about how she’s going to react to this man who nearly murdered her, but she doesn’t register that at all.

No, and she refuses to tell Golaud on her death bed whether she loved Pelléas.

I don’t think she knows the answer to that. This is why I was so interested to draw this very explicit parallel between her and Lulu: because they’re both people who never accept responsibility in a moral sense.

I understand that you take as a starting point your production of Lulu. Are there any theatrical or visual parallels to watch out for? I’m thinking, for instance, that Maeterlinck is said to have once favoured marionette-style acting, and that a key visual trope of your Lulu was the Hans Bellmer-type jointed doll which captured her essence.

No, there’s nothing puppet-like about this. But it does all take place within the same environment, and it even starts the same: this body bag is brought on, and Mélisande emerges from it like a sort of nymph. So in a way, she’s born like something out of a chrysalis. And it’s very clear to me that, although everybody says ‘follow me’, she always knows exactly where she is going.

The crumbling castle reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher [an opera on which Debussy died without completing, and which David recently produced at WNO]. The castle of the ‘Allemonde’ – that’s an interesting word actually isn’t it?!

Meaning ‘all the world’. Yes, totally! Well of course there’s a huge link with Poe. Debussy was very impressed with Poe, and all the French authors of that period were – especially Baudelaire, who translated him. So yes, the piece is stuffed full of Poe.

That murkiness of the house, with water everywhere after a drought. You get the feeling of being sucked down.

A miasma! You get that in Usher don’t you? There’s the light that comes from this algae in the pond.

Mélisande is a creature who’s arrested in her development as you say. And yet on her death bed, she’s just given birth to an infant daughter.

Are you sure that the child at the end is Golaud’s?

No, not at all! Do you make anything of that paternal uncertainty, or do you leave it hanging?

Well I do treat Mélisande as an active sexual being. Again like Lulu, it wouldn’t occur to her to desist if Pelléas wanted it, so it’s perfectly possible that Pelléas is the father. I’m not really in a position to make it clearer than that! But some people play her as this little waif and I think she’s much, much more knowing. Also the way she lies is very significant, it’s very confident and knowing. She’s not going to murder anyone but she is the cause of murder in others. And she wafts about as if she’s got nothing to do with it.

When we first see her, it’s suggested that she’s been traumatised.

There’s the crown in the water. She’s come from another disaster.

With the implication that she’s probably caused that one too?

Oh I think definitely! My dream is to complete this trio of pieces with Ariane et Barbe-bleu [the 1906 opera by Paul Dukas] in which Mélisande appears as one of Bluebeard’s wives.

That would be exciting! I’ve also read ideas about her – vis-à-vis Pelléas – being Bluebeard’s eighth wife.

In Ariane she’s one of the seven. Ariane is the seventh and last – she’s the one who tries to save them all. There is a Bluebeard-y element in this production, actually. Which you’ll see …

Aha! There was a real fascination with these characters and the unknown wasn’t there? Bartók too produced a Bluebeard’s Castle [1911]. It all seems to tie in with notions of Symbolist literature where to define is, in a sense, to destroy.

Yes, this comes back to the notion of clarity or certainty. They wanted to leave these things as ambiguous symbols. Take the scene in Pelléas with Yniold [Golaud’s son from his former marriage], where he’s lost the golden ball. The golden ball is hidden under the rock but you can waste hours trying to work out what this means! It means bugger all – it’s just a nice symbol.

People love trying to work out who the mysterious shepherd is who appears in that scene.

Yes – you’ll see I have taken a view on that scene …

Ah, more intriguing still! I have to ask – does the Wanderer make an appearance? [In Wagner’s Ring, the Wanderer is the god Wotan in disguise. He appeared to striking effect in David’s production of Lulu.]

Well, there is that figure who brings on the body bag …

Right! …

It’s often said that Pelléas is tricky to stage due to the amount of silence involved; where the characters don’t sing, but remain on stage and have to hold the tension. And the singing itself is very ‘interior’ by comparison to some people’s expectations of opera. How do you find that? Does it put particular strains on the singers?

You know, I find absolutely not. I find it puts strain on the audience! Because there are people who are infuriated by Pelléas – which I can’t understand at all. But there are people who are waiting for a forthright, Verdian musical declamation of the situation, and they never get it. And there are people who feel you spend the whole evening chasing threads which just evaporate under the door as you get to them. Which I think is fabulous. And we’ve got a wonderful cast, so if you’ve got good actors there’s no problem to stage it. I think some audiences have a problem to accept music being such a chimera really.

People keep looking for the form.

Yes – and the big tunes! But of course there are tunes galore in this piece. I think it’s one of the most ravishing scores.

Me too – it’s fabulous! And both Debussy and Maeterlinck have been described as the ‘quiet radicals’ who changed everything. Many different composers have responded to the play – from Sibelius to Fauré to Schoenberg – so it clearly captured the imagination. But it seems to me that Debussy realises the play’s essence – and with exquisite music. It was very radical at the time to take a prose play and effectively just lop the first scene off as he did.

And set it all parlando, basically.

The vocal lines themselves are actually very naturalistic, using tiny intervals.

Yes – and they’re very difficult to memorise as I’ve been discovering!

What’s the relationship between literary and visual inspiration for Debussy in Pelléas do you feel? The word ‘impressionist’ is often applied to his music –

– which he hated. I’m not quite sure why he did but he did, apparently. Perhaps he didn’t like being lumped in with all those painters! Well, Maeterlinck had lots of Edward Burne-Joneses on his wall didn’t he – and all those Walter Crane fairytale illustrations?** So he knew all of that English world of Pre-Raphaelite medievalism. I think Maeterlinck was very influenced by that, and I think Debussy probably followed; that’s obviously what he was thinking about. And of course, Tristan und Isolde sits so firmly behind Pelléas. It’s as if Pelléas is really the obverse of Tristan; it’s everything that Tristan isn’t. But by so being, in his own utterly individual way, Debussy comes incredibly close to it.

How do you see that working with the piece itself, that TristanPelléas duality if you like?

I guess it’s because what interests Debussy, as Wagner in fact, is the inside of the apparatus of the story. They’re both in a way very slender stories aren’t they? There are very few incidents and very few facts, and a vast amount of supposition and exploration of emotional, psychological states.

And interesting too that should you mention the Crane, that whole Edwardian world.

Yes, that takes us into Peter Pan!

David PountneyInterestingly, in terms of Art Nouveau, there’s George Frampton’s sculpture of Peter Pan [1912] in Kensington Gardens which mightn’t look out of place in Paris. Yes, the terrible innocence of Peter Pan – but perhaps he’s not so naughty as Mr Darling, who’s rather hopeless!?

Well Mr Darling is completely infantile really isn’t he? What’s so fascinating about that story is that it’s so satirical in many ways, and so psychologically acute about Victorian bourgeois parenthood and this frightful male world, where the obverse of Mr Darling is Captain Hook – all this public school nonsense about dying like gentlemen! The story is brilliantly multi-faceted. It’s a romp, it’s an adventure, and it’s an actually quite tragic psychological description of the lot of women. Poor Mrs Darling, grieving all the time because her fling or not-fling with Peter Pan has gone forever and she’s stuck with Mr Darling. Poor little Wendy being turned into a frightful little housewife.

First they shoot her down, then they build her a house – and tell her to get going with the chores!

Yes, straight to the sewing!

It’s quite a world isn’t it?

It is. It’s full of very dark corners. But it manages to go on being a romp and an adventure at the same time. I think it’s brilliant, and I think Richard’s music is absolutely perfect for it.

Yes, the ebullience and downright wild control, actually, of Richard’s music seems perfect. I can imagine kids, too, absolutely loving it. But it is very dark. I was just thinking of Lulu where you have Dr Schön mirrored by Jack the Ripper. In a way here we have Mr Darling mirrored by Captain Hook, flipping between the two.

Right! Yes, in my programme note I’ve compared the battle between Lulu and Dr Schön with the battle between Golaud and Mélisande. Golaud is constantly trying to pin her down and she’s constantly eluding him.

While Pelléas is essentially Alwa [Schön’s son and Lulu’s lover], who doesn’t know how to cope, who’s drawn in by Mélisande’s magnetism?

Yes. I haven’t yet found the moment for her to seduce Genevieve! She’s seduced everyone else in the piece by the time we get to the end. I’m just slightly missing that one moment.

There’s an interesting moment they have looking out over the sea – isn’t that when Pelléas’s boat appears in the distance?

No, it’s her boat leaving. It’s going to have a shipwreck they all say.

Of course, I remember. So she’s trapped with them – or they with her!

Yes, it’s a kind of Agatha Christie: ‘the car drove off down the drive and the snow started to fall’!

Genevieve’s an interesting character in that she appears to have no interest! What’s her function?

I don’t know, I haven’t found what’s interesting about her! I guess she’s really an exposition device: to read the letter at the beginning and to tell you who everybody is. She’s completely silent at the end; she doesn’t say a single word, but just comes on and off with the baby.

So, of the two female characters we see in the opera, one is an exposition device and the other is the most dangerous magnet – who is completely passive.

Completely passive, yes that’s right. It’s brilliant the way Mélisande plays the scene with Golaud so that after he’s been injured – which is an interesting point, because apparently she has magic powers; the moment she throws his ring away he falls off his horse! – when they’re working through the outcome of that, it’s brilliant the way in which she lets the conversation go on, to the point where Golaud orders her to go with Pelléas into the grotto. So ultimately she’s sent there by her husband.

Golaud seems ‘innocently guilty’ in the sense that, although he murders Pelléas, he’s utterly wretched.

He’s a blunderer really, and he’s all the time being tortured by somebody with a rapier whilst he’s there swinging a club. He’s being dissected, provoked.

She has a go at old King Arkel as well doesn’t she – teases him?

Oh yes.

She’s cruel and ruthless. And yet there’s the twist that, at the beginning as we’ve said, she appears to have been traumatised.

I think that’s right, yes. You start off being invited to be sympathetic to her. Poor little girl found by the roadside!

So how do you see the character of Pan by comparison – I know Keith Warner is directing that so it’s not your production, but in terms of the season theme?

Again I think he’s someone who seduces by arrested development really. He’s allowed to go on playing the child long after he should have given it up, and thereby can pretend to be innocent as Mélisande does. The one thing is, I don’t think there’s any suggestion of Peter Pan being sexually active whereas Mélisande very definitely is.

It’s interesting how what’s often dismissed as ‘children’s literature’ can explore the same issues as adult literature but in a very different way. And there’s a lot of moral caution in Peter Pan.

Yes definitely.

Is there an equivalent in Pelléas? Other than ‘don’t pick up strange girls’?!

‘Off the side of ponds’! Yes: don’t believe you are master of somebody just because they appear to be vulnerable.

That’s very thought-provoking. And you’re talking about power and control amidst apparent destiny and fate. Mélisande dies, but there’s nothing more for her to do because she’s sucked the life force out of everybody else.

Yes, she’s destroyed the castle, effectively.

Just as in Usher. I do hope you get to do Ariane et Barbe-bleu – that would be absolutely wonderful.

Yes it would. And of course it would be wonderful to be able to do that with Lulu and Pelléas et Mélisande together.

Here’s to that. Thank you for talking with me.


* You can also hear music by Richard Ayres at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, which starts this Tuesday, May 12, running to Saturday May 23: http://valeofglamorganfestival.org.uk/home/

** Edward Burne-Jones was an English painter, closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and Walter Crane was a prolific English artist and designer best remembered for his illustrations of children’s books.